Essay: Meadham Kirchhoff

Girly: Laing on 'A Wolf in Lamb's Clothing'

by Morna Laing .

Kinderwhore can be understood as an instance of same-sex drag: exaggerating the contradictory demands of ideal femininity; betraying its constructed-ness; subverting it from within.

The figure of the 'woman-child' appears time and time again in the field of British fashion. Caught somewhere between the discursive domains of childhood and womanhood, the 'girl' has vast and malleable 'symbolic appeal.'[1] She has been used at different historical moments to symbolise something beyond herself: modernity and progress; freedom and financial independence; pessimism and so-called heroin chic.[2] But what does the 'woman-child' represent today, following three (or even four) waves of feminism? This question is unravelled here through discussion of Meadham Kirchhoff's Spring/Summer 2012 collection, A Wolf In Lamb's Clothing.

The collection conveyed a sense of hyper-femininity through pom-poms, tutus and clashing colours. What stood out amidst the general frou-frou were the exaggeratedly childlike motifs: chequered bears, rainbow sweaters, and pinafores with smiling hearts. Although receiving positive coverage in the fashion blogosphere as well as the mainstream press, you could be forgiven for finding it, at first glance, overly saccharine or even retrograde in its nod to the 'fluffy' femininity of the fifties. Yet look a little closer and the sickly sweet wrappings were sharply offset by the models' strident steps and unabashed stares. The childlike signifiers did not seem to infantilise the models who instead appeared strong and in control of their own self-image.

In order to unpack these disparate elements, Meadham Kirchhoff’s rendition of 'girly' needs to be read through the lens of historical discourses on childlike femininity. The construction of ideal femininity as childlike was critiqued as far back as the eighteenth century when Mary Wollstonecraft lamented the way women were encouraged to remain in a state of 'perpetual childhood': innocent and weak with limited access to education.[3] Much later, in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir critiqued woman's position as the 'eternal child': 'shut up in her flesh, her home, she sees herself as passive before these gods with human faces who set goals and establish values.'[4] The gods referred to were the men of her day, and de Beauvoir's point was that constructing women as childlike served to secure their inferiority; aligning women with children made it easier to justify their differential treatment. This informs the textual history of the word 'girl', which has been used, in some cases, to underscore women's lack of full adult status. How, then, can the recent resurgence of 'girly' be explained? And do twenty-first-century articulations of 'girly', like those of Meadham Kirchhoff, succeed in re-signifying childlike femininity, overriding the historical connotations of female inferiority?

A clue lies in the disjuncture between the hyper-girly wrappings and the strong internal subjectivities. Explaining their decision to call the collection A Wolf in Lamb's Clothing, Edward Meadham stated that the 'wolf' was intended as 'a confrontational and aggressive thing masquerading as something sweet and innocent.'[5] The saccharine attire was the lamb, and the wolf was the empowered female subjectivity lurking beneath, only partially visible. This sense of disjuncture was reinforced through various references to Courtney Love. The show opened with a sample from Hole's song Miss World (released in 1994), while an army of 'pastel-clad Courtney-Love-alikes'[6] took centre stage, dancing raucously as the Meadham Kirchhoff défilé took place around them.

Courtney Love's aesthetic of the nineties has been referred to as 'Kinderwhore'[7], with Anne Higonnet describing it as a 'hybrid between a toddler and a vampire.'[8] The Kinderwhore aesthetic fuses signifiers of childhood, such as dolls, gingham and Mary Jane shoes, with signifiers of overt female sexuality, such as dark make-up and close-fitting tea dresses. Love's look was controversial because it flouted the innocence/knowledge binary that keeps women analytically separate from girl-children.[9] Furthermore, upon becoming a mother, Love 'refused to ratchet down her sexuality, her violence, her publicity, or her maternity.'[10] This meant that she also betrayed the paradoxical myth of virginal motherhood. In melding the codes of childhood, female sexuality and motherhood, Love parodied, or eschewed, the virgin/whore dichotomy that has long separated 'ideal' femininities from 'deviant' ones. Kinderwhore can thus be understood as an instance of same-sex drag: exaggerating the contradictory demands of ideal femininity; betraying its constructed-ness; subverting it from within.[11] 

As the Meadham Kirchhoff show continued the 'Courtney-Love-alikes', with powder puffs and baby-doll dresses, were joined by pirouetting girl-child ballerinas: one of whom twirled atop a giant wedding cake, with a mirror behind her (while the music made reference to a twirling Winona Rider in the Edward Scissorhands snow). This both celebrates girl culture, and implicitly critiques versions of femininity that call for women to keep within 'acceptable' limits, 'shrinking them in the cultural imagination to a manageable size.'[12] Writing about the nineties backlash against feminism, Susan Faludi argues that such versions of femininity call for woman to remain, 'forever static and childlike. She is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow.'[13] But the Meadham Kirchhoff models delighted in overflowing the bounds of the girl-child ballerina; they refused to shrink away.

Although referencing Courtney Love, A Wolf in Lamb’s Clothing was not a mere pastiche of Kinderwhore. In an interview for Dazed & Confused, Edward Meadham stated that he, 'wanted to feel like nothing bad was going to happen, in terms of the moods and the colours.'[14] Accordingly, the dark eye make-up of Kinderwhore was replaced with an almost clown-like look in turquoise, fuchsia and yellow. While Love wore black patent Mary Janes over white pelerine socks, Meadham Kirchhoff girls wore frilly platforms over red and green tube socks. The models fluffy cloud-like hair, graced with pastel-coloured streaks, replaced the peroxide hair and dark roots associated with Love. In the same interview, Benjamin Kirchhoff explained that they, 'tried to really not have a dark side. We didn’t want to have an undercurrent of anything. The whole idea was more celebratory than confrontational.' This is significant because, as Rebecca Arnold notes, Love’s embodiment of Kinderwhore, although subversive, tended to have an undertone of danger or a woman on the brink of destruction. By contrast, A Wolf in Lamb’s Clothing allowed for childlike femininity to be parodied, without rendering it 'deviant', 'unhealthy' or 'self-destructive'. The knowingness of the models and the exaggerated childlike elements offered a defiant riposte to the regulatory notion of the 'male gaze' as well as the impossible virgin/whore dichotomy that informs so many articulations of femininity.

The subversive reach of the collection extended beyond the catwalk through the designers' and models' re-enactment of a Slutwalk on the streets of Dalston.[15] Explaining their allegiance to the Slutwalk movement, the designers stated, 'there is always a thread of protest running through our collections and what we are saying here is connected. The clothes might appear sweet, playful, naive - but it does not mean the wearers are. It's essentially a celebration of girlishness.'[16] The potential for resistance derives partly from the way the clothes combine indulgence in childlike femininity with a political message about the inside and the outside: about femininity as a construction and the inconsistencies in occupying a female - or indeed male - subject position. The designers' ability to combine pleasure with politics is no mean feat. The 'woman-child' is a figure that recurs time and time again in the fashion media. And these childlike femininities often go with the grain of normative femininities, presenting a vision of woman that is submissive or vulnerable. Such femininities are problematic in that they naturalise childlike femininity by presenting it as coherent, thus tying in with de Beauvoir’s notion of woman as the 'eternal child'.[17] Meadham Kirchhoff might therefore represent one way in which pleasure and politics can co-exist, thus allowing childlike femininity to be re-signified to a more political, critical and empowering end. To borrow a phrase from Judith Butler, A Wolf in Lamb's Clothing is a welcome instance of 'parodic laughter.'[18]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jobling, P. (1999) Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography Since 1980, Oxford: Berg, pp.111-2

[2] For discussion of these girl figures, respectively, see: McRobbie, A. (2009) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, London: Sage; Radner, H. (2000) On the Move: Fashion Photography and the Single Girl in the 1960s in Bruzzi, S and Church Gibson, P. (eds.) Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis. London: Routledge; and Arnold, R. (1999) ‘Heroin Chic’ in Fashion Theory, 3(3), 179-296

[3] Wollstonecraft, M. (2004) [1792] A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin

[4] de Beauvoir, S. (1970) [1949] The Second Sex, London: Vintage

[5] Dazed & Confused, (2012) Eye Candy: Meadham Kirchhoff February 2012.

[6] British Vogue (January 2012) 

[7] Arnold, R. (1999) 'Heroin Chic’ in Fashion Theory, 3(3), 179-296

[8] Higonnet, A. (1998) Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, p.198

[9] For further discussion see Higonnet (1998)

[10] Ibid. p.198

[11] For discussion of ‘same-sex drag’ see Evans, C. (2003) Fashion at the Edge. London: Yale University Press

[12] Faludi, S. (1993) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. Vintage: London, p.92

[13] Ibid. p.92

[14] Dazed & Confused (February 2012) Eye Candy: Meadham Kirchhof.

[15 For discussion of the Slutwalk movement see Gold, T. (2011) Marching with the Slutwalkers in The Guardian, 7 June, 2011.

[16] British Vogue (January 2012)

[17] See for instance Laing, M. (2012) ‘Heavenly Creatures' in Vogue: Childlike femininity and longing for innocence lost, in Rachel Lifter (ed.), Working Papers in Fashion Studies 2, London: LCF.

[18] Butler, J. (2006) [1990] Gender Trouble. New York & Oxon: Routledge